Virtual ancestor reconstruction: Revealing the ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals

J Hum Evol. 2016 Feb;91:57-72. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2015.11.002. Epub 2015 Dec 29.


The timing and geographic origin of the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals remain controversial. A poor Pleistocene hominin fossil record and the evolutionary complexities introduced by dispersals and regionalisation of lineages have fuelled taxonomic uncertainty, while new ancient genomic data have raised completely new questions. Here, we use maximum likelihood and 3D geometric morphometric methods to predict possible morphologies of the last common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals from a simplified, fully resolved phylogeny. We describe the fully rendered 3D shapes of the predicted ancestors of humans and Neandertals, and assess their similarity to individual fossils or populations of fossils of Pleistocene age. Our results support models of an Afro-European ancestral population in the Middle Pleistocene (Homo heidelbergensis sensu lato) and further predict an African origin for this ancestral population.

Keywords: 3D geometric morphometrics; H. heidelbergensis; H. neanderthalensis; H. sapiens; Last common ancestor; Maximum likelihood.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Fossils / anatomy & histology*
  • Hominidae / anatomy & histology*
  • Humans
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Neanderthals / anatomy & histology
  • Phylogeny
  • Skull / anatomy & histology*